The Nippon Foundation’s welfare vehicles, with their eye-catching green logo against a white background, are a common sight in Japan, where they are used for welfare facilities’ shuttle and bath services. Since 2007 the foundation has put to work 198 “retired” vehicles that are still in good condition, sending them to Cambodia, Indonesia, Peru, and Sri Lanka. In 2012, Myanmar was added to the list. Below we report on the operations at a factory in Yangon, where the vehicles are converted into ambulances and other vehicles used for medical purposes.
Ambulances in Short Supply
Twenty-six retired vans and cars from Japan are getting a new life in Myanmar as ambulances and vehicles for other medical purposes. Vehicles arrived in Yangon up to the end of 2012 and were stored in a parking lot adjacent to a Myanmar Ministry of Health storage facility as they awaited renovation and a new call of duty.
In 2011, the Myanmar government deregulated the import of used cars. Car prices subsequently dropped to one-tenth their former levels, and car ownership rose sharply. In a city where traffic jams were virtually unheard of before democratization, congestion suddenly became the norm. Some people expressed concerns that the donated welfare vehicles were no longer necessary since cars could now be acquired.
However, Dr. Tin Nyunt, the former head of the Health Ministry’s Traditional Medicine Department and current advisor on the Myanmar side for the program, pointed out that the system for emergency medical services was still inadequate. Based on this view, the decision was made to convert the vehicles into ambulances and donate them to national hospitals run by the Health Ministry.
Dr. Tin Nyunt describes the problems now faced:
“Myanmar is making rapid strides forward. However, about 600 of the 800 national hospitals still don’t have enough ambulances. That’s why this program is so important to us. We need to train paramedics so that we make full use of these 26 ambulances.”
Rudimentary Repair Shops, Dedicated Staff
After arriving in Myanmar, the vehicles are taken to a factory in Yangon that specializes in medical equipment. There they are outfitted with a stretcher, interior furnishings, emergency medical equipment, light bar, and a siren. “AMBULANCE” is written in red capital letters on the front of the vehicles, but otherwise they retain the look of the Nippon Foundation’s welfare vehicles on the road in Japan. The original green logo mark remains. The manager of the factory, Pe Than, praises their sturdiness:
“A lot of medical equipment is heavy, and if the car body isn’t well built, major reinforcement work has to be done to make them strong enough to carry the equipment inside. It’s a lot of work for us. The Japanese vehicles, though, can be used just the way they are. We know they can safely transport sick or injured people, and medical procedures can be done in the vehicle.”
Once the renovation work is finished, the vehicles are taken to a car repair shop. Parts are changed to comply with regulations in Myanmar and repairs are made. The shops are far from well equipped; they may be the size of a garage in a private house or a single parking space in an outdoor parking lot. However, the mechanics go about each task with a single-minded devotion that calls to mind Japan’s small factories back in the 1960s.
On the day of our visit, mechanics were fixing up a vehicle that had been used by a nonprofit organization in Gifu Prefecture named Ankiya to transport facility users with physical disabilities. A message written by the staff at Ankiya when the vehicle was retired was displayed on the dashboard:
“Thank you, dear vehicle. You came to us when our facility first opened and clocked 430,000 kilometers transporting people with physical disabilities. You endured summer temperatures of 35 degrees and winter temperatures of minus 15 degrees. You traveled along snowy and icy roads safely . . . Please keep the people in your new home safe and well.”
The message touched the staff at the shop, since the people of Myanmar, like the Japanese, attach great importance to taking good care of their possessions. They immediately had it translated into the Myanmar language and displayed a copy in the vehicle. Dr. Tin Nyunt, also deeply impressed, pledged that, “We’ll keep the Japanese spirit alive and treasure the van.”
Health-care activities account for a large proportion of the Nippon Foundation’s assistance to Myanmar. In 2012, the same year the donations of used welfare vans began, the foundation also began assisting mobile clinics in regions where ethnic minority groups live. In cooperation with the Health Ministry and Myanmar Medical Association, medical service teams are regularly dispatched to communities in the states of Mon and Kayin, where ethnic minorities live, in order to provide health services and help improve hygiene.
Expenditures involved in the donation of 26 used welfare vehicles to Myanmar (as of March 31, 2013)
- Shipping and storage costs: ¥3.27 million
- Customs procedures and other paperwork: ¥190,400
- Vehicle repair/refurbishment: ¥5 million (estimated)
- Duties (exempt)
- Average per-vehicle expenditure: ¥300,000
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa